Health Insurance

What Are The Main Types Of Health Insurance In The UK?

Confused about private health insurance and wondering what's out there? Read our in-depth guide which will tell you the main types of health insurance in the UK and whether you really need to invest in it.

In the UK, we are incredibly lucky to have the National Health Service (NHS), a publicly funded body which provides free healthcare to the whole population. You can access a whole host of services and procedures through the NHS, and for many people this is more than enough to meet their day-to-day healthcare needs. In fact, on an average day for the NHS more than 1 million people attend a GP appointment!

However, whilst the NHS provides fantastic care it does come with some pitfalls that may lead you to consider other options. For example, wait times for accessing certain services or procedures can be long and you can be restricted in terms of when and where you receive your treatment. Some people prefer to purchase health insurance, essentially 'going private' to jump ahead of the waiting lists and give themselves more flexibility over their healthcare.

So, what are the options out there?

We’ve created a handy guide detailing all you need to know about the common types of health insurance available in the UK so you can consider whether they might be right for you.

Table of contents

What are the main types of health insurance in the UK?

For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on the three main types of health insurance available in the UK. These are:

  • Private health insurance
  • Health cash plans
  • Critical illness cover

You may also find some insurers offer condition-specific plans although these are less common. Aviva, for example, offer Cancer Essentials and Physio Essentials plans which are specifically targeted towards people with certain illness and conditions.

When you hear the words 'health insurance' most people automatically think about private health insurance, so we think this is a good place to start!

1. Private Health Insurance

According to the British Medical Association (BMA) the purpose of Private Health Insurance is to help you pay for private medical treatment and care for short-term, curable conditions when you need it most. This type of insurance is designed to work alongside the NHS, which grants free access to a variety of different healthcare services to UK residents.

Private Health Insurance
An insurance policy that helps cover the costs of private healthcare, such as diagnosis and treatment.

It is a desirable option that appeals to many as it can give you greater control over your healthcare — for example, it gives you flexibility to choose the location of your treatment as well as increasing your access to a choice of specialist services and treatments that are not covered by the NHS.

We have put together the ultimate guide to purchasing private health insurance, which you can check out here!

Click the below drop down arrows to reveal more about Private Health Insurance!

What is and isn't covered with depend on your insurance provider, however you'll find the following applies to many policies:

What is typically covered?
Inpatient Treatment
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Outpatient Treatment
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Day Patient Treatment
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Hospital Accommodation & Nursing Care
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Emergency Treatment
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Pre-existing Medical Conditions
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Chronic (long-term) Medical Conditions
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Dental Care
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Mental Health Conditions
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Drug and Alcohol Dependency
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Non-essential Cosmetic Treatments
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Fertility Treatment or Normal Pregnancy
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Make sure you read through your policy documents carefully before taking out a policy with a provider so you know exactly what you are covered for. These are usually provided when you request a quote from an insurer though you can usually find them easily on the insurers website.

It's difficult to say exactly how much taking out private health insurance will cost you as there are many different factors that can affect the cost of your premium. These include your age, location and medical history.

To give you an idea, we conducted research using a sample profile of a 35 year old male non-smoker from a mid-sized town in the UK. We found a no-frills single person plan (i.e. if you were looking to take insurance out for just yourself) with a £200 excess costs on average around £35 per month based on the quotes we received from some of the UK's top health insurance providers. Remember to take this with a pinch of salt, and any quotes you receive could be more or less depending on your own circumstances.

To find out more about what affects the cost of private health insurance, you can read our guide here.

We've also reviewed a whole host of some of the UK's most popular private health insurance providers such as Aviva, AXA, Bupa, Vitality and The Exeter.

Private health insurance isn't right for everyone, and many continue to live long and healthy lives through care provided by the NHS. If you're unsure about whether going private is the right choice for you, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you happy relying on the NHS for your treatment?
  • Do you already have insurance in place as a result of your employee benefits package?
  • Are you in a position where you can afford to take out private health insurance?
  • Would it be more cost effective to pay for individual treatments as and when you need to?
  • Do you simply prefer private healthcare?
  • Are you happy to face potentially lengthy wait times for treatment on the NHS?

If you're in a position where you are happy with the care you have received from the NHS or generally find you don't need to access these services all that often, then it might not be for you.

2. Health Cash Plans

Next on our list is the Health Cash Plan, which you may be less familiar with.

Private Health Insurance provides more comprehensive cover for private healthcare for acute conditions, such as diagnosis and treatment

Health Cash Plans help you to budget for the costs of your everyday healthcare needs, such as the dentist

Unlike private health insurance, health cash plans help to cover the costs of routine, or everyday healthcare.

Examples include visits to the dentist or opticians, and cash plans allow you to claim back some of these expenses through monthly premiums.

We covered health cash plans in more detail here, so do check this out.

Click the below drop down arrows to reveal more about Health Cash Plans!

Health cash plans can cover the costs of a variety of routine healthcare expenses. Whilst the exact level of coverage will vary depending on your provider, here are some benefits we have found are typically included:

  • Dental: for example, dental check-ups, crowns and fillings
  • Optical: for example, eye-tests, prescriptions glasses and contact lenses
  • Physical therapy: this may include physiotherapy, osteopathy and chiropractic treatment
  • Chiropody: this is the treatments of food problems, for example, that which is undertaken by a chiropodist or podiatrist
  • Consultations: this may cover the fees for diagnostics, such as blood tests
  • Hospital stays: you will often find cash plans can help with costs for things such as travel or parking if you or your child is admitted to hospital
  • Maternity: many providers will offer a cash payment on the arrival of a new child
  • Health screening: for example, full health screening, breast screening and heart screening

The cost of your health cash plan will depend on many factors as well as the level of cover you take out. As with all types of insurance, the more comprehensive the cover, the higher the premium.

Here are few things to keep in mind which will likely affect the cost of your policy:

  • Age: you are more likely to encounter health problems as you get older, so older customers may find their premiums are higher
  • Your location: you may not think it, but some regions are considered to have higher health risks, such as London
  • Your lifestyle: certain lifestyle choices are seen to be 'riskier' leading to a higher likelihood of health problems further down the line. Smoking is a common example of this, and will often raise your premiums

One of the downsides to health cash plans is that they aren't typically on comparison sites, so you'll need to go direct to an insurers website to get your quote. Although it may take you more time, we recommend heading over to a few different insurers sites and comparing the quotes you have gathered against both price and cover. Remember, cheapest isn't always best!

Whether or not investing in a health cash plan is worth it depends entirely on your own needs and circumstances. Here are a couple of things to think about:

  • If you or your family have a lot of routine healthcare appointments during the year, and you find you struggle to pay for these costs, then a health cash plan may be a good choice for you. Essentially, if you are going to get more out of it then you are putting in, its makes financial sense.
  • However, if you generally find you don't require a whole lot of costly, routine treatment and don't get ill very often then opting for a health cash plan might mean you are paying out more than you claim back.

In any case, taking out a health cash plan does not mean you lose access to any of the care offered for free by the NHS, and many people find that the NHS is affordable enough for their needs.

3. Critical Illness Cover

The last type of health insurance we are going to look at is Critical Illness Cover.

As the name suggests, critical illness cover provides financial support if you are diagnosed with any critical medical condition included in your policy. Your insurer will pay out a tax-free lump sum (i.e. a one-off payment) which can help cover the costs of treatment as well as other things, like rent or mortgage payments.

Critical illness cover is not the same as life insurance, although many people purchase the two together!

Note that critical illness cover is not the same as life insurance, which pays out money to an individual the policy holder has named in the event they pass away.

One of the great things about critical illness cover is that you can use this money however you wish, as it is designed to support you whilst you are unwell.

We've written a separate article covering critical illness cover in more detail, which you can find here.

Click the below drop down arrows to reveal more about Critical Illness Cover!

We might sound like a broken record, but as with most types of insurance what is and isn't covered will vary between insurers. However, there are some core health conditions you'll find are typically included within critical illness cover plans:

What is typically covered?


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Heart attack

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Certain types and stages of cancer

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Hypertension (high blood pressure)

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Non-invasive cancers

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Non-permanent conditions (e.g. broken bones)

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The following conditions may be covered, but it will depend on your specific plan so be sure to read those policy documents carefully!

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Major organ transplants
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Alzheimer's
  • Loss of limbs
  • Traumatic head injury

Again, this will depend on your insurer and a variety of other factors. We've put together a handy guide that discusses these in more detail, as well as other factors that may affect the cost of health insurance. You can read this here.

Unlike private health insurance and health cash plans, critical illness cover is typically taken out alongside other types of insurance, namely life insurance and income protection.

Critical illness cover may not be the best choice for you, and the issue of whether you really need to invest in it depends on your own healthcare needs and circumstances.

Critical illness cover might be a good option if:

  • You rely heavily on your income
  • You don't have enough in savings to cover the ongoing costs of living if you become seriously ill
  • Your employee benefits package doesn't cover extended periods of time off work

You may not need to invest in critical illness cover if the following apply to you:

  • You have sufficient savings to cover ongoing payments, such as rent and bills
  • You have minimal or no large financial commitments, such as a mortgage
  • You have no dependents (e.g. young children)
  • You have a partner who can help cover ongoing payments and any shared commitments such as a mortgage
  • Your employee benefits package fully or partly covers extended period of time off work

Do I need health insurance?

Health insurance is very much a personal choice, so there is no right or wrong answer to this. We would recommend you sit down and take the time to think carefully about your own healthcare needs and personal circumstances to determine which, if any, is right for you.

The great thing about living in the UK is that we are fortunate to have our National Health Service (NHS) which provides free healthcare. Many people will find the NHS more than satisfactory to meet their needs, so health insurance may not be something they need or want to think about. For others who may be at an increased risk of being diagnosed with a chronic condition or are simply tired of NHS waiting lists, health insurance may be a good option.

Whatever you choose, always remember to prioritize cover over cost — your health and wellbeing is priceless!

What type of health insurance is best for me?

If you've decided that you want to invest in health insurance but aren't quite sure which would be best for you, then we would recommend reading our more in-depth articles about the different types of health insurance we have covered here:

If you're still unsure, we would recommend speaking to a specialist insurance broker. The great thing about insurance brokers is they don't charge any fees for their services, and it is their job to get to know you and understand your needs, so they can find the right policy and level of cover for you.

Confused between insurance brokers and insurance agents? Don't worry, we've got you covered. You can have a look at the differences here.

Emily Bunt

Emily is a psychology graduate from the University of Kent, who is currently contributing to the health insurance content at NimbleFins. She also works in healthcare strategy and planning at Lexica. Prior to this she worked in market research at Kantar, investigating consumer behaviour and decision making, as well as in a supporting role in the field of mental health. Learn more at LinkedIn.